VanRossum’s Ghost

Posted October 15, 2007 in Feature Story is a strange and ugly little website, similar in appearance to those espousing such conspiracy theories as JFK being assassinated by the Freemasons, or 9/11 being the work of Jewish bankers and space reptiles.

The pages are defaced with graphic images of open bullet wounds and a semi-pornographic cartoon. The text is filled with enough typos and grammatical monstrosities to give seasoned copy editors night terrors. Not a paragraph goes by without the author feeling the need to capitalize or underline something, such as “The mission of this website is to EXPOSE CRIME and CORRUPTION” and “I struggled to return back to work, despite almost dying and being disabled.”

Everything about the website dares you—double-dog dares you—to take it seriously, but you should. For all its ugliness and hyperbole, is a kind of memorial—a twitchy, festering monument to one of the worst travesties of justice in the history of the city of San Bernardino.

The site’s author is Stephen K. Peach, 44, a disgraced former San Bernardino cop who bears the unusual distinction of having been shot by fellow officers in two separate incidents. A stocky British ex-pat, Peach joined the San Bernardino Police Department in 1991, and over the next 10 years worked stints as a gang investigator and member of the force’s SWAT team. He earned glowing performance reviews from his superiors, and was loyal enough to the department to shrug off as “no big deal” a 1998 incident in which the department’s firearms expert, Tom Shank, accidentally shot him in his right hand while climbing over a fence on a SWAT mission. The bullet broke one of Peach’s fingers and took off a nail.

After two weeks of recuperation, Peach returned to his duties, and on his very first assignment back on the job was shot again—this time by SWAT Sergeant (now Lieutenant) Ernie Lemos. The incident happened at the Devore home of former San Bernardino detective Douglas Domino, who at the time was wanted on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon. Peach and Lemos were assisting sheriff’s deputies in arresting Domino, when, Peach says, Domino opened his front door and Lemos suddenly opened fire on him. Peach, who was standing in front of Lemos, was shot in his right thigh.

Lemos’ bullet traversed Peach’s upper leg and severed his femoral artery. He was airlifted to a nearby hospital, where doctors tied off the artery and saved his life, but he had lost so much blood that several muscles in his leg eventually had to be removed. Domino, who dived for cover when the shooting began, survived the incident without a scratch.

Peach spent the next five months in painful recovery, after which he returned to work on limited duty. But Lemos’ bullet had opened his eyes, as bullets that sever major arteries tend to do. Unlike the first shooting, Peach said he found it impossible to shrug off the incident that almost killed him.

“After I was shot the second time, things really started to add up for me,” he says.

On his website, Peach flatly accuses Lemos of deliberately shooting him as part of a complicated scheme involving numerous police officials to assassinate Domino. When I ask him to explain the accusation, Peach says that Domino “was becoming more and more religious” and preparing to spill the beans on massive corruption within the narcotics unit of the department. The officials who planned Domino’s murder were all active or former members of the narcotics unit.

“They wanted to create a gunfight with Domino. My shooting was something they needed to make it look like Domino was shooting us,” Peach says. “Douglas Domino was in narcotics, which is typically the most corrupt section in a department because they have access to a lot of money, and a lot of money goes missing.”

But the plan backfired, Peach says. Domino survived the shooting, and, worse for his would-be assassins, so did Peach. He describes his remaining time with the department as one of increasing mutual animosity, with Peach repeatedly pointing out official wrongdoing to his superiors and his superiors growing more and more desperate to silence him. Finally, he says, they fabricated a charge against him that he’d had sex with an underage confidential informant, and, in 2001, fired him.

“That’s how they do it. That’s how they silence you,” Peach says. “They essentially discredit you so no one will ever believe what you have to say.”

Peach appealed his termination to the department’s civil board, lost, sued the department in state and federal court, lost in both, and all the while told his story to every reporter he could get to listen. Reporters listened for a while, but no article on his claims ever saw print.

And so, in 2003, Peach launched On the home page, he denounces the leadership of the SBPD as hopelessly corrupt, refers to himself as “the unfortunate patsy,” and labels City Hall as a “corrupt criminal government.” On subsequent pages, he accuses former mayor Judith Valles, current City Attorney Jim Penman and other top city officials of crimes ranging from bureaucratic cover-ups to defrauding taxpayers of millions of dollars.

He also calls for anyone wishing to share his or her own encounters with San Bernardino’s corrupt, criminal government to do so, either through e-mail or by posting in the site’s guest book. It’s in the guest book where the website gets really interesting.

Since its inception, has become a kind of Wailing Wall for disgraced or disgruntled police and civilian employees, municipal gadflies, and others who describe themselves as concerned residents. In postings under such names as “Disgusted with SBPD,” “Deep Throat, SBPD,” and “Insider,” they trade rumors about this city official being a sex maniac or that police official being a white supremacist, copy and paste entire news articles on the general topic of government malfeasance, and, of course, share their own personal accounts of playing the unfortunate patsy.

For their part, San Bernardino police officials consider the website something of a joke. Asked to comment on Peach’s claims, police spokesman Lieutenant Scott Patterson laughed out loud, then said: “It’s very easy to make allegations. We can’t really make any comment on these things, because most of these allegations are totally outrageous. Some employees here may be disgruntled, but I’m very proud of this department and know we work very hard to maintain the public trust.”

The most interesting stories on are the ones with real names attached to them, and, of those, perhaps the most compelling is that of Tom Gronewald, who from 1997 to 2003 served as the Police Department’s chaplain. In 2000, Gronewald was asked by then-San Bernardino Police Chief Lee Dean to form a nonprofit organization in order to take advantage of grants made available under the Clinton Administration. He did so, creating a 5013-c nonprofit called Inland Empire Chaplains Corp., with himself as president and a board of chaplains from other departments, two police officials and two fire department officials.

Gronewald then launched into the complicated process of applying for a federal grant. Way out of his depth—the chaplain had never seen a grant application before, let alone written one—he asked Dean for help, and the chief furnished a subordinate—Captain Robert Curtis—to complete the application for him. The finished product was signed by Dean and mailed away without Gronewald ever getting a chance to review it. In 2002, Inland Empire Chaplains Corp. was awarded a $125,000 Value-Based Initiative grant by the U.S. Department of Justice. And that’s when everything went south.

Gronewald’s plan had always been to spend any grant money where he felt it would do most good—helping juvenile offenders attain their high school diplomas or GEDs. The police department had other plans. As soon as the money began coming in—federal grant funds are typically dispersed in increments—department officials began spending it. Exactly what they were spending it on is unclear: the federal checks were deposited straight into the city’s general fund, and Gronewald never could get an accounting of purchases. Minutes from the nonprofit’s board meetings show Gronewald and other chaplains repeatedly asking the department’s liaison to the board, Lieutenant Mark Garcia, for receipts, and Garcia repeatedly putting them off.

Gronewald finally began to suspect he had been manipulated by Dean to form a nonprofit for the sole purpose of the department securing grant funds by claiming it was in partnership with the nonprofit. The grant application had been written by police officials and signed by Dean. In other words, the money that sprang from the application was the department’s money, and the department was going to spend it any way it saw fit—fuck diplomas for juvenile offenders.

In January 2003, Garrett Zimmon, who had replaced Dean as chief of the department, applied for a second year of funding through the Value-Based Initiative program. “As described in the application, grant personnel have been very successful in implementing year one goals and objectives,” Zimmon wrote in the cover letter. “In year two, the department will continue to build on this successful foundation and strengthen our partnerships with faith-based organizations.”

According to Gronewald, the first he was aware of the second application was when Garcia left a copy of it on his desk more than two weeks after it had been mailed in. It was the last straw for Gronewald, who wrote a letter to the head of the grant program in Washington, D.C., stating that the Inland Empire Chaplains Corp. had ceased “partnering” with the Police Department in relation to the grant. He put a copy of the letter in Zimmon’s mailbox, and within two weeks was fired from his position as chaplain and thrown off the board of the nonprofit he had created.

Gronewald said he was saddened by the response, but hardly surprised.

“The San Bernardino PD brass is capable of anything—I have no doubt they would do harm to someone they didn’t like,” says Gronewald, 55. “I knew if I said anything, they’d terminate me, so I cleaned my office out before I wrote the letter to the federal government people.”

Gronewald took his story public by reading a prepared statement at a March 5, 2003, San Bernardino City Council meeting, accusing the Police Department of inappropriately using his nonprofit in order to secure grant funding. According to reporters present at the meeting, City Attorney Jim Penman responded to the allegation by saying the Inland Empire Chaplains Corp. had always belonged to the Police Department. Gronewald had merely been a volunteer.

“Sometimes when we do volunteer work, we feel a sense of ownership that doesn’t exist,” Penman says, perhaps unaware that just months earlier, the department had stated in a grant “progress report” that it sought the original $125,000 grant “in partnership” with the Inland Empire Chaplains Corp.

Gronewald sued the department for wrongful termination, lost, and then moved with his wife from San Bernardino—where he had lived his entire life—to Orange County.

“I just felt at that point that the city was beyond redemption,” says the minister. “When a city reaches a point that it’s so corrupt it protects criminal activity and gets rid of decent people, it’s not redeemable.”






Then there’s the story of Heidi Sullivan, who I interviewed after reading her claim on that she had been raped and impregnated by a San Bernardino police officer.

Sullivan, a 24-year-old L.A. resident, says she was crossing University Avenue near Hallmark Parkway in San Bernardino around 11 p.m. August 20, 2005, when a man driving a “black or dark blue Crown Vic” pulled up to her. The man told Sullivan he was an undercover officer for the San Bernardino PD, and that she resembled a suspect he was looking for. He checked her ID and made a call on his cell phone, explaining to Sullivan that his police radio wasn’t working, and then told her she had a warrant out for her arrest and was in violation of her parole by leaving L.A. County. Sullivan said she assumed the warrant stemmed from a 2003 traffic ticket she hadn’t paid, and that she was, in fact, on parole for a battery conviction.

The man handcuffed her and put her in the back of his car.

“He said he was taking me to West Valley Detention Center in San Bernardino County,” she says. “Then he started saying he could do something else instead of putting me in jail. I told him I’d rather go to jail.”

She said the man drove her “into the mountains,” where he raped her, cracked her on the head with a handgun, then took her credit cards and cell phone before driving back to the city and dropping her off at a train station.

Sullivan says she knew the man’s last name, because he had used it several times when calling for information on her. But she decided not to report the incident because he had told her he knew where she lived and would kill her if she ever told anyone what he’d done.

“I didn’t know what to do—I was scared,” she says. “Then I found out I was pregnant.”

Sullivan said she got on the Internet to look for any information on a San Bernardino cop who was raping women, and one of the sites she came across was She contacted Peach, who suggested she tell her story to a Los Angeles attorney he knew. The attorney told her he couldn’t touch her case until she filed a police report.

“So I called the San Bernardino PD and asked them how to file a report that a cop had raped me,” she says. “That’s when everything went crazy.”

According to Sullivan, the lieutenant she spoke with on the phone had two officers pick her up at her L.A. home and drive her to San Bernardino Police headquarters. She filled out a report, and then was taken to an interrogation room where a male detective mercilessly grilled her for hours.

“He kept saying that I was nothing but a felon, that I was lying, that my story didn’t make sense,” she says. 

Sullivan was driven back home. Two days later, she called the station and spoke with an officer about the status of her case.

“He told me they weren’t going to do an investigation,” she says. “That ticked me off so bad that I said something like, ‘If you won’t do anything, the next time I find the guy I’ll do it myself. I said I would kill him. They wouldn’t do anything. I was pregnant and pissed off.”

From the point of view of law enforcement, right here was where an allegation of rape under color of authority ended and the case of the People of the state of California vs. Heidi Sullivan began. Within two days of her phone call, a pair of San Bernardino police were again sent out to Sullivan’s L.A., this time to arrest her. She was held in custody for the next seven months awaiting trial on three counts of making criminal threats and a single count of filing a false police report.

“My attorney (public defender Michael Chiriatti) told me that if I had the baby in jail, they would take it away from me,” she continues. “But if I pled guilty, they would let me go home for six weeks and have my baby before serving my sentence. He told me that they’d arrange to have someone take care of my baby until I was released, and then I could have it back.”

On May 15, 2006, Sullivan—now nine months pregnant—pleaded guilty to a single count of making a criminal threat and was sentenced to one year and three months in prison. The reason three of the counts against her were dropped might perhaps be the result of a preliminary hearing on the case held six days earlier.

Three items leap right out of the transcript of that proceeding that would give pause to any prosecutor worth his or her salt. The first was the spectacle of a San Bernardino police officer dancing around the question of what, exactly, had pissed off the defendant to the point of threatening to kill a cop.

“Heidi Sullivan stated that she was upset about being impregnated, allegedly impregnated by one of the officers and that it was not right what he had done,” testified Officer Dario Robinson.

The second was Robinson acknowledging that there was, in fact, an officer in the department with the same last name as the man Sullivan claimed had raped her. Robinson said he had warned the officer that a threat had been made against him.

The third item was this comment to the attorneys by presiding Judge Kenneth Andreen, who apparently wasn’t in a mood to dance around the question:

“You have—you’ll have a jury with some women. Women, if you’re married to one who is vocal, you’ll know that they see things as women being at a disadvantage, very often victims themselves. And there will be a juror on that—your jury (sic) who is a woman who will think that this woman is fighting impossible odds. She claims that an officer raped her. The officer—his buddies find that it’s not, that he didn’t, so she feels frustrated. And I think you should settle it out, but that’s your decision later.”

Sullivan was briefly released from prison to give birth to her baby, whom she named Tyler, then sent back to serve out her time in Chino. Tyler was made a ward of the San Bernardino Department of Child Services and placed in a foster home, where he remains to this day.

With credit for time served, Sullivan was released from custody in September. She is now appealing her conviction with the help of a public appellate agency.

Sullivan’s story bears striking similarities to another sordid tale connected to the San Bernardino Police Department: the Ronald Allen VanRossum rape case.

Between 2000 and March 2002, when he was finally arrested, VanRossum, an officer of 14 years with the department, raped at least 24 women, possibly as many as 60—we’ll never know the exact number, because most of his targets were, like Sullivan, convicted felons unlikely to turn to the police for help. Like the beast in Sullivan’s story, VanRossum scooped his victims off the streets of San Bernardino while on night patrol, told them they had the choice of sex or jail, drove them to remote areas and raped them.

VanRossum ultimately pleaded no contest to 11 counts of rape by threat of authority (31 other felony counts against him were dropped as part of a plea deal), and is currently serving a 34-year sentence. But it isn’t just the details of Sullivan’s rape claim that recalls VanRossum. The very words she used to describe her experience when I interviewed her were similar—suspiciously similar—to the published words of reporters who covered the VanRossum case.

“He handcuffed me,” Sullivan told me over the phone in our first interview. “He just kept driving, about 30 minutes, and then took me into the mountains, and that’s where he raped me.” Now here’s an excerpt from a 2002 story in the San Bernardino Sun: “She said (VanRossum) handcuffed her, drove her around the city for about 30 minutes, then took her to an abandoned building, where he allegedly raped her.”

This odd coincidence isn’t the only problem with Sullivan’s credibility. She first told me that she was in San Bernardino the night of the attack on work-related business (she was an investigator for the Scientology-affiliated Citizens Commission on Human Rights of Los Angeles). Her former boss at Citizens Commission denies this. She later changed her story to say she was in town searching for a former Patton State Hospital investigator, for whom she had worked for as a confidential informant while she was an inmate there. The man says he had no relationship with her whatsoever.

When I asked her why she was at Patton, she said that she had feigned mental illness in order to be transferred there from the California Institution for Women in Chino. Sullivan has something of a habit of making false statements: In 2000, she received a three-year sentence for calling in a false bomb threat (“My friends and I were drunk, and we thought it’d be funny”).

But the biggest problem with her story is the fact that she falsely accused a former housemate of committing the same crime she now accuses a San Bernardino cop of having committed. A full month before she filed a rape report in San Bernardino, she told detectives with the El Monte Police Department that a man living in the halfway house she was staying at had raped her on August 20, 2005. When I asked her why she would knowingly accuse an innocent man of assaulting her, she said: “I just wanted to get out of that halfway house. I could tell he was planning on raping me anyway.”

That Sullivan and her VanRossum-like story would gravitate to Stephen Peach’s website is hardly surprising. The specter of VanRossum haunts the pages of Peach states on the very first page of the site that the real reason why his former police comrades came gunning for him was because he had passed on to his supervisors a tip he’d heard that a San Bernardino cop was raping prostitutes. His supervisors ignored the tip, he says, and VanRossum continued raping women for a full year before a prostitute finally stepped forward and fingered him. Realizing that Peach was now a liability, he says, his bosses silenced him by destroying his reputation.

Gronewald, perhaps the most sympathetic of all the voices on the site, says that when he tried to get Chief Zimmon to look into what was going on with the grant money, Zimmon told him that he wanted to but couldn’t, because the department couldn’t withstand another scandal so soon after VanRossum.

The message of, regardless of whether you choose to believe it, is that the San Bernardino PD is corrupt, rotten to the core. VanRossum, who took pleasure in brutalizing the very people he had sworn to protect, is the living embodiment of police corruption at its very worst. His crimes blew a gaping hole in the credibility of the department, and through that breach flowed Peach and his band of unfortunate patsies.

This is, in itself, a kind of poetic justice, given how easily the city of San Bernardino and its police department sidestepped any real responsibility in the VanRossum case. In 2002, the City Attorney’s office settled nearly all of the claims against the city by VanRossum’s victims by bundling 16 of them into a single payout to a single attorney, Steven Paul Coleman. In total, San Bernardino coughed up less than $300,000 for the victims—a trifle given the magnitude of VanRossum’s offenses. The victims saw only a fraction of the money—Coleman, who has since been disbarred, stole the rest. According to one of VanRossum’s victims, Coleman’s phone number was given to her—by the City Attorney’s office.

San Bernardino City Hall will forever be tied to that horrible injustice. Until it acknowledges this fact, VanRossum’s ghost will never rest, and will always have an attentive audience.


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